Orchestrating Unwired Computing

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2003-03-17 Print this article Print

Coffee: Until there are hot spots everywhere, applications must pretend—or protest.

Theres a wonderful irony in going to New York City to promote technologies that try to make us independent of location. Being a Manhattan native myself, Im allowed to call that island a monument to the idea that being in a particular place is worth any amount of cost and nuisance--even as Intels Centrino announcement, held there last week, sought to assure us that the future of working from anywhere is both affordable and convenient. In terms of hardware, Intel is certainly correct, but someone has to write the applications that can handle this new mode of only-almost-always connection. Theres another irony for you: Just when weve finished rewriting our applications to make good use of persistent Internet access, we need to relearn the art of writing them to deal with intermittent loss of that network link. As eWEEK Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist observed while en route to the Centrino announcement, it will be a while before there are wireless hot spots everywhere wed like. Fortunately, Iona Technologies is applying its considerable skills to just that problem. As we near the April 7th date of announcing our third annual list of eWEEK eXcellence Award winners, Ill confess that its always a relief when a previous winner of one of those awards--such as Iona--continues to live up to that distinction: Considering the hundreds of outstanding products that we have to decline the chance to honor each year, its comforting to be able to say, "See? We told you these guys were good."
Ionas Mobile Orchestrator targets a critical goal for the next generation of productivity: "Automatically adapts application behavior in response to connection status and speed," as the bullet list of product features claims. Thats long been one of my exhortations to the industry: that applications should use whatever resources of bandwidth and data they can get, but not make your life miserable when they dont get as much as theyd like. (One of the few things I really want from the forthcoming Microsoft Office 11, for example, is just that promised improvement in the remote-client behavior of Microsofts Outlook.)
On the other hand, I also felt a twinge of concern as I went down the list of Ionas goals for the Mobile Orchestrator product: "When not connected to a network … the Iona technology will save all the users work"; upon subsequent connection, "it synchronizes … with the current online production environment." This could be a very good thing indeed, but then again, its one thing for connection to be transparent and quite another for the loss of that connection to be invisible. If two different sales representatives each think theyve committed the same piece of inventory to two different customers, bad things will happen when their systems next have to agree on a shared reality. When I first saw Intels term for the Centrino way of life--Occasionally Connected Computing--I felt as if a defect were desperately masquerading as a design decision. It reminded me of the sort of black humor that was popular in this business about 30 years ago, when the mythical Intercal programming language included statement types like COME FROM (to avoid using the unfashionable GO TO). Im less prepared to be amused, though, by the social effects of making "knowledge workers" ever more free to leave the center city. If we can manage to ignore the homeless when we have to step around them on city sidewalks, imagine how invisible theyll be when we never even have to get that close. "I think people are ready for this technology," said Intel CEO Craig Barrett at the Centrino launch: Lets hope it doesnt widen the gap between the connected and everyone else. Tell me if youre ready to cut the cord and leave desktop computing.
Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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